MIAMI – A fast start and faster finish were enough to send the Miami Heat back to the Eastern Conference finals.
LeBron James scored 23 points, Dwyane Wade added 18 and the Heat rallied from an 11-point second-half deficit to beat the Bulls, 94-91, on Wednesday night and close out their second-round series in five games.
Chris Bosh scored 12 points and Udonis Haslem added 10 for Miami, which ran out to a 22-4 lead, then was outscored by a whopping 29 points over the next 27 minutes before recovering. The Heat outscored the Bulls 25-14 in the fourth.
Carlos Boozer finished with 26 points and 14 rebounds for the Bulls, who were without Derrick Rose for the 99th straight game. Nate Robinson and Jimmy Butler missed potential tying 3-pointers on the final possession of the season for Chicago, which dropped the last four games of the series.
Robinson scored 21 points, Butler had 19, and Richard Hamilton 15 for the Bulls.
And there was drama, all the way to the end.
Robinson's 3-pointer with 1:43 left got the Bulls to 94-91, and Butler knocked the ball away from Chris Bosh for a turnover on the ensuing Miami possession. But Boozer missed an open 15-footer with about a minute remaining and, when Wade knocked the ball off Boozer's leg after a Miami miss with 45 seconds left, the Heat retained possession — with a fresh shot clock to boot.
But Miami didn't score, and the Bulls had a final chance. Robinson missed a 3, and Butler faked his way free for a good look that hit the rim, before bouncing away.
Time expired, and the Heat lingered on the court in celebration. Wade held on to the game ball as he shook a few fans' hands, and he, James and Bosh exchanged some high-fives — the last three Miami players to leave the floor.
Shane Battier opened the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer to get Miami within five. Another 3-pointer from Battier — over Boozer, his fellow Duke alum — came not long afterward, and he connected on a pair of free throws after being fouled on a 3-point try to cut Chicago's lead to 81-79.
Norris Cole had a pair of baskets, the second being a left-handed driving dunk, to put Miami on top, and the Heat found a way to close it out from there.
Miami will open the East finals at home next week, and it'll be a playoff rematch from its march to the title last season. If Indiana beats New York — the Pacers lead that series 3-1 — on Thursday, then the Heat and Pacers will meet for Game 1 in Miami on Monday night. If the Knicks extend the Pacers to at least six games, then the East finals would open Wednesday night, regardless of opponent.
The Heat will almost surely be big favorites against either Indiana or New York, though it's certain either opponent would enter a series against Miami with plenty of confidence. The Knicks went 3-1 against the Heat this season, outscoring them by 11.5 points per game and winning both of their games at Miami convincingly. The Pacers went 2-1 against the Heat, winning twice in Indianapolis and losing their lone game in Miami.
To put that in some more perspective, the Heat went 2-5 against the Knicks and Pacers, and are now 72-12 against all other NBA clubs this season.
Then again, given how Miami has played over the last 3˝ months, the notion of the Heat losing to anybody four times might seem downright impossible. The Heat lost at Indiana on Feb. 1. They won at Toronto two days later, the first victory in what became a run of 27 straight wins — and the start of a stretch that has seen Miami now go 45-3 in its last 48 games.
More than half the league — 17 of the other 29 teams — didn't win 45 games, total, this season, even including playoffs.
No one would have thought the ending would be so exciting after the way this one started.
Marco Belinelli took the Bulls' first shot, a woefully short airball. Joakim Noah took their second shot, a very long airball. Their third possession was a turnover.
The night was shaping up like a Chicago disaster. It was 10-0 before half the crowd was in their seats, and 22-4 just past the midpoint of the opening quarter. Since the start of Game 4, in barely over 53 minutes of play, the Heat had outscored the Bulls by 40 points. Everyone in the building — except for the 20 or so guys in red uniforms or wearing suits on the Chicago bench — had to be thinking that the series was over.
If so, then they were all wrong.
Game 5 turned into a microcosm of the Bulls' season. They were unfazed, unflappable, unrelenting in the face of being counted out.
And before long, the massive deficit was a thing of the past.
Boozer went 6 for 7 in the opening quarter, his layup late in the period getting the Bulls within seven before James scored to end the first and give Miami a 30-21 lead. The Bulls were undeterred, and just kept getting stops on one end, making baskets on the other. Butler's 3-pointer with 4:46 left in the half gave Chicago its first advantage of the night, 38-36.
To recap, the game started with a 22-4 Heat run — and in the 13 minutes that immediately followed, the Bulls rebutted with a 34-14 burst.
By halftime, it was 53-47. In the third, after Chicago briefly led by 11 — remember, they were down 18, making that a 29-point turnaround — the Bulls took a 77-69 edge into the final 12 minutes.
NOTES: Miami is 6-0 in its last six chances to close out a series. ... Wade, in a particularly comical pregame moment, compared his ongoing issues with a bruised right knee to an Almond Joy candy bar. "Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't," which was Wade's way of saying that sometimes the knee feels better than others. ... Kirk Hinrich's calf injury is improving, the Bulls said, but not to the point where he could play.